post–modern hegelianism: a reply to “a reply”

“Hegelianism—like post–modernism—became ambient, infiltrating the language and thinking even of those who had never read or understood the master’s work.”

—Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947


I apologize for the (very) belated reply to your post. Injury and incident have kept me from spending too much time at the keyboard this past month, and now that I find myself able and with the time and inclination, I find it hard to narrow my approach to this question in a way that will work as a blog post.

I’m not at all unappreciative of where Marx went right. As a prophet of the alienation brought about by industrialization, he’s without peer. The problem—though not the interesting problem—with Marx is that he absolutized that realization into a quasi–metaphysical system. (I am putting aside the “eschatological” question for the time being, because the role of millenarianism in modern politics, left & right, is something that is not unique to the Hegelian strain I’m interested in, here.) One of the clearer signs of this is one you respond to here, my complaint that core Marxist terms are essentially nebulous but also given great dialectical and historical utility. While that is fine if they are understood as imprecise rhetorical tools, they are also, in practical Marxism, used as precise political tools. Those outside the proletariat can be transformed into “class enemies”, “exploitation” a demon lurking behind all apparent failures. Is this transition essential to Marxism? Perhaps not, but it is natural to it.

You get to part of the issue here when you write: “Economic transactions… are social transactions. Any time human beings are interacting you are going to have levels of complexity which make ambiguity and contradiction inevitable.” (Despite your apparent pride in not having read but a hundred pages of von Mises, you sound remarkably like a praxeologist, here.1) This ambiguity is reason, at least, for some humility about the powers of our political/economic theories.

“But the other side of [Spirit’s] Becoming, History, is a conscious, self–mediating process—Spirit emptied out into Time; but this externalization, this kenosis, is equally an externalization of itself; the negative is the negative of itself.”

—Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (808) [trans. A.V. Miller]

You write: ‘The most interesting thought you’ve mentioned in this discussion is the notion “a Hegelian political order is the one remaining attractive option, and Marxism is the only remaining acceptable/coherent version of one.” I agree. I have also (and I realize this brings me full circle) waved the flag of surrender to Hegel.’

I do not know if this is what you meant, but I have not waved my white flag to Hegel. What I meant by this is that for the majority of persons concerned with the Good, Hegel remains the one way they see to have both the obvious fruits of modernity and have the reaction against its evils. That Marxism remains the only attractive option for doing so is largely a matter of historical contingency, not of philosophical rigor.2

Hegel is the first great thinker to stand after the four revolutions. Two were philosophical: Hume, then Kant. The others were political: the American and the French. And in a real sense, all subsequent revolutions have simply participated in those prior. Because Hegel is at his most useful when talking about history, the concepts of aufheben|sublation and aufgehoben|preservation are of use here. Hegelians constantly re–fight these fights because of the twin syntheses that lie at the heart of Hegelianism: An attempt to reconcile the old political order with the new, and the (not so very) old religious order with the new philosophy.3

A necessary digression: The common assumption is, whatever their shrunken utility today, the categories of “Left” and “Right” as established in the furor of the French Revolution are in fact the primary categories. Leftism is seen as revolutionary/progressive and Rightism as counter–revolutionary/reactionary. While this is true (to a point) for Left and Right, the truly primary divide is rather between what I wish to call “Liberals” and “Organicists”. (The reasons for not opposing “Conservative” to “Liberal” are two: (1) There are counter–revolutionary liberals, this is clear; (2) Not all organicists wish to conserve a prior social order, many wish to build a new one in an act of revolution.) The liberals are those advocates of the modern, rational state, the givers of rights and the champions of freedoms; the organicists are those who recognized the powers of the organs and structures of the ancien régime (in the case of right–organicists, this is especially true of the Church) and sought to preserve them when possible or at least construct new societal structures.4 The Left tended to use the tools of “Scientism” and “Moralism” to construct values on which to direct its endeavors, while the Right used “Societarianism” and “Moralism”. I make this last note about tools, because I think it is useful for examining political movements (like libertarianism) which contain left and right wings.

Anyhow, this immediate, manifest fracturing of what was already implicit begged for some attempt at rebuilding with the pieces at hand. (It seems to be the lot of most eras which suffer an obvious collapse to begin rebuilding without quite knowing what to aim for, sure that the New Order must be right around the corner.) Enter Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

It was Hegel who wrote the first philosophy for a democratic age in over two thousand years. The characteristic philosophy of democratic Athens was that of the Sophists. Sophism was the philosophy of rhetoric, but for an innocent age which did not mind naked honesty; it admitted a simple truth—when the majority rules, philosophy becomes the act of discovering the truth not by reason, but by persuading the majority. The truth is created in convincing. The philosophy of democracy is rhetoric. We see this daily, as plain as anything else. If the comboxes of blogs seem bad enough with their unskilled appeals to base instinct in place of reason, it is even more evident in our news media and again within ourselves where, unless we had particularly excellent parenting, the only way in which we understand the very purpose of our education as the practice of informed discretion is from independent study and reflection; the “spirit of the age” (we are speaking of Hegel!) violently opposes just such an end for education, rather, its end has become the cultivation of the correct democratic impulses. The rhetoric begins before the information is even given.5

Hegel baptized rhetoric in the waters of metaphysics. By tapping into the monist hopes that have long rested within Western philosophy, Hegel’s Spirit is the force of rhetoric moving upon the mass of humanity. It retains the absolute within rhetoric, hiding its insubstantiality within layers of speech. Hegelianism is able to so perfectly give narrative shape to the twists and turns of modern intellectual history not because of its metaphysical validity, but because it so perfectly describes the position of philosophy after the revolutions as it creates it.6 Even as the English-speaking world long held Hegel at a distance, it could not keep the core of his teaching out of the popular mind; the Anglo–Saxon may hate Hegel for his obfuscating dialectic and prophetic declarations, but he resorts to thesis/synthesis/antithesis, anyhow.7

What is unique about the Hegelian political project is its left/right agnosticism, its essential organicism (with appeal to liberalism largely confined to its scientific pretensions) and how that organicism is directed towards either humanity as a whole or within nations themselves. The struggle between Left and Right Hegelians was not so much because of ambiguity or true impartiality one the revolutionary question in Hegel, but a necessary outcome of a synthesis that could not withstand the romanticism of Left or Right towards their readings of, in particular, the French Revolution. That Hegel himself walked this line is mostly due to the obvious complexity (or indiscrimination) of his affections.

There are many reasons a Hegelian political order remains attractive:

—It is essentially democratic in spirit, but accepts that democracy in practice is unnecessary.8
—It strives for an organic society in which people can “go home” without surrendering the advantages of the modern age.
—It is able to be at peace with modern technology and scientific revelation, unlike most authentically reactionary creeds, avoiding the stain of hypocrisy in its peace with things like… toliet paper, the internet or antibiotics.

Right Hegelianism has been branded with a swastika on its forehead, and that mark may never go away. So, Marx remains. This is the obvious reason for why Buckley had some nostalgia for the idea of being able to be a young Marxist today, as mentioned in that interview with Corey Robin you recently linked.9 Buckley genuinely hated Nazism and fascism (perceiving their influence in the counter–revolutionary furor the Birchers had against communist influence in the US) so when at the end of his life he began to doubt the firmness of the Burkean–conservative foundation, the last chance for an organic political order, the last chance for an aristocracy that would pay its obligations to the people, was Marxism. The tension in Marxism is that it can never resolve the synthesis with the aristocratic order inherent in its Hegelian roots in the real world. The egalitarian hope that the proletariat freed from its leash would be able to spontaneously govern itself is false in reflection, false in practice and increasingly shown to be false by science (IQ will remain largely genetic for some time, and hopefully, always). Thus, the dictatorship of the proletariat finds itself in need of a dictator, and that dictator in need of knights of the bureaucracy, the academy and the military. Marx’s continual attraction for the intellectual is the idea of being in a society where he will be able to wield power, unlike the democratic one where he is mostly impotent, though often privileged. This is why we have conservatives who love Marxism like the Red Tories, and Marxists who act awfully like conservatives in their tastes and attitudes. Zizek is the modern embodiment of the latter, but in being so he only mirrors the natural evolution faced in Marxist states; there’s a real point to the reactionary thesis that, after the death of Stalin, the USSR became the bulwark of European cultural tradition versus the global revolutionary stance of the United States.10

The ultimate problem with Marxism (ignoring its history) is that it cannot escape the problems of modernity because it cannot escape its own internal struggles. It ultimately has no absolute to grasp, there is no God in its heaven. No matter how much mental energy can be used and distracted by the subtleties of the dialectic, the mentally healthy Marxist will always remain aware of a certain emptiness (as well as the adherent of any of the modern totalities will). As government cannot be entrusted forever to the insane, it will always debase its functionaries by the constant exercise of hypocrisy, the moral effects of which are evident in any account of life under Really Existing Socialism. No man ever gets to ride the tiger. There is also nothing to be had by being an authentically religious person and a Marxist because either the Marxism will endanger the religion or the religion with overrule the Marxism. Politics as was able to co–exist with Christianity died in the revolutions, because politics became total with the advent of democracy and the drowning of philosophy in skepticism and rhetoric.

The political challenge of the modern man is to escape the political in order to have the authentically political life once again; the constant inner rush of demands to engage in the correct attitudes is political, but in a sense no longer directed towards the polis. Religion no longer provides a refuge from this (though that weakness is not inherent to it), and certainly Marxism does not, either.

• • •

1 You write: “Pure Austrianism and Mises proper are niche theoretical realms with seemingly little to no impact on social and economic arenas today.” While it may seem as such, the academic economists at places like Auburn and George Mason are usually far more interested in Mises–proper and the Hayekian wing than the anarchic–libertarian/Rothbardian wing represented by Lew Rockwell/LvMI and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Ron Paul. You may be aware that Ayn Rand—certainly a statist compared to the Rothbardians—detested Hayek for his compromises with social spending and taxation. Libertarianism is not the only, or even the primary end–game suggested by Austrianism. While von Mises certainly has his great flaws—chief among him his determinism, but that’s a flaw shared with Marx!—Human Action in particular remains readable and insightful. It doesn’t give that frisson of prophetic excitement that Marx does, but it does carefully outlay a number of truths about human economic activity that I think still elude many economists today.

2 The thesis that follows has novel elements, some of which I will not be able to support. I am aware of this.

3 This is the key to understanding the character of Napoleon as “the world spirit on horseback”, not as some youthful exuberance that would have been unuttered by an older, wiser Hegel, but an essential recognition that Napoleon was already working in the political sphere the twinned syntheses which Hegel wished to make manifest in the philosophical. This is the sense of destiny in Hegel—if Napoleon is not the New Christ, he is at least his prophet! The work had already begun.

4 Another divide, this one fairly meaningless for our purposes, as it was a matter of indifference to Hegel himself at most moments, is that between the an–, mon– and polyarchists within each group so described.

5 These propaganda structures create remarkable systems of distraction. A friend insists the real function of critical race and gender theory is to distract students from the fact that their colleges have ripped them off by directing them against an enemy that is simultaneously internal and non–existent. (The real function does not have to be the intended one, but I don’t know if she’d divide these like I do for this case.) Looking over signage from the various Occupy–protests, the ones that state coherent demands are frequently demands for some sort of unrealistic deconstruction of biology OR express some deep hatred of normal human good such as family, innocence or culture. Many of the Occupiers’s complaints have to do with… the student loan boondoggle. Surprise! While the Frankfurt school sought to destroy capitalism through these rhetorical viruses, it appears instead that they simply castrated the Left.

6 Attempts to use Hegel to understand the development of philosophy before—at least—the 18th c inevitably must distort and twist the actual arguments, motivations and actions to fit the reality to the template. While I disagree with a not–insignificant amount of what I wrote on my former blog, I stand by the essentials of my critique of Alasdair MacIntyre’s crypto–Hegelian reading of the project of St Thomas Aquinas.

7 This is ignoring the real postwar trend towards an Anglo–American reading of Hegel which began first among Leftists trying to get in touch with the core texts when the indigenous socialist traditions in both America and the UK had become co–opted by Soviet influence and has now begun to blossom as the distinction between analytic and contintental philosophy continues to blur. (Roger Scruton is the only significant proponent of a right Hegelianism I can think of in English.)

8 I mention this in particular as it will be what will drive more and more people towards some Hegelian political project or another as the obvious failings of democratic–in–practice societies to govern and sustains themselves becomes clear.

9 I liked that, unusually for an old leftist, Doug Henwood actually understands what “My Back Pages” is about, enough to where he cut the song off with two stanzas remaining, and the last the most generally effective in the song. (The fourth, of course, is the perfect expression of what is going on at Occupy Wall Street.) There’s more I could say about Robin’s statements.

10 For two non–military examples: the CIA funding of avant–garde art as psyops or the continuing State Department promotion of critical race and gender theory in things like badgering the French educational system for being insufficiently egalitarian and propagandizing. For military examples… well, there’s a reason I think Robin was being disingenuous in that interview when he simply said that people call neoconservatives the “Trotskyites of the Right”, when they aren’t just called that, they really are Trotskyites and were explicitly following in the pattern of a postwar Trotskyite tendency to see the USA as the best possible instrument of permanent revolution. They certainly are not Straussians, however much they borrow from his methods when necessary.



Filed under philosophy & theology

7 responses to “post–modern hegelianism: a reply to “a reply”

  1. Ari,

    Glad to hear you are doing better. Thanks for such a thoughtful and well crafted response. There is much here that resonates. But I have a major test on Tuesday of next week and a rotation final on Thursday, and I would like to chew this over for a bit and be able to respond to it appropriately, so I will have to postpone my response for a week or so.

  2. One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


    • While there were some interesting points to your post, your near–completely–irrelevant–to–this–post comment accompanying the link makes it clear that you have probably been spamming this exact comment across a number of blogs, which Google can happily verify. I understand thinking oneself as having something important to say means you might wish to get it out there, but some engagement with the luckless bloggers you are using as billboards might be more effective.

  3. Best refutation of Hegel I’ve heard today:

    An acquaintance of mine, a university professor from the Balkans claims that once when she was 9, a Communist Party official gave a talk to her class, telling them that history would end once everyone became communist. Her response was “So we’ll all disappear?” “Huh?” “But if history ends, there’s nothing left and so we’ll all disappear, right?” Apparently, they called her parents…

  4. Ari,

    Having read this over multiple times now, I really don’t know where to begin or how to formulate anything akin to a comprehensive response. There are some areas where I agree, some areas that I have little opinion about, and a lot where there is so much disagreement with no chance of either of us convincing the other that continued engagement would involve a lot of repetition.

    So I will respond rather sporadically, not intending to cover all bases, but getting at some of the things that strike me as I read you response.

    A Hegelian political ordo is essentially democratic in spirit, but accepts that democracy in practice is unnecessary.

    There is the cat out of the bag element to Hegelianism to consider. The parameters Hegel used aren’t the parameters of Hegelianism. Have you seen Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History by Susan Buck-Morss? It’s worth a look.

    The Left and Right as primary categories and The Left tended to use the tools of “Scientism” and “Moralism” to construct values on which to direct its endeavors, while the Right used “Societarianism” and “Moralism”. I am supposed to be getting a gift copy of Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind in the mail in the next few days, but having read a number of reviews now and the debate regarding his theses, I am inclined to think that the values you note are more rhetorical differences than not – the right has so often adopted elements of leftist thought, tactic, and theory, and done this since the counter-revolutionary thinkers, that I think it is hard to take the values between right and left as substantially different once we go beyond particular contingencies. The application of values is, of course, different. Who gets to win in the end is different. The particular desired ends at a given time are different. And on the question of scientism one has seen it decried and embraced by elements within both left and right – from the beginnings of the post-revolutionary period onward.

    Perhaps this gives the game up to you on the rhetoric point, but with regard to my complaint that core Marxist terms are essentially nebulous but also given great dialectical and historical utility. I don’t see Marxist terms as any more nebulous than the terms Augustine used with regard to social mechanisms, or the terms of Aquinas with regard to justice, and so forth. I return to my anaology – the term exploitation is no more nebulous than the term rape. The parameters of both are debatable, but to deny the reality of either renders one a madman and/or sociopath. Among Marxists there are ways of dealing with the question who is exploited (see, for instance, ). One sees great debate within Marxist circles regarding terminology. But given the incredible degree and amount of epistemological crisis and debate within Christian circles, even within given Christian communions (RCC, EOC, magisterial Prot, Mainline Prot, Evan Prot, etc.) it is difficult for me to take a Christian complaining about the nebulousness of Marxist terminology as anything more than prejudiced. Even within given schools of Christian thought, say Thomism (with its various neo-thomisms including whig Thomism, and its various thomisms from Gilsonian to SSPX , etc. claiming to be authentic Thomism, etc.), there is an epistemological crisis no less pronounced than what one finds among intellectual Marxist circles. An outsider looking at Christian terminology without sentiment and without shopping for a solution to some sort of spiritual need is not going to view Christian terminology as any more epistemologically stable than Marxist terminology.

    With regard to your thesis that post Hegel all there is is rhetoric, I’ll have to think about that some more. It is certainly true that there are no longer stagnant ontologies – they become fluid, as it were. I’m not sure about the emphasis you place on rhetoric then. This seems a polite way of saying that post Hegel we are left with nothing (assuming we accept the terms of Hegelianism) but a bunch of hot air. Of course Hegelianism does isolate the concrete (or believes itself to be doing this), but in a radically different manner than what is seen prior to modernity. Hegel baptized rhetoric in the waters of metaphysics. Yeah, OK, sure, I guess, but remember the context was such that any going forward was going to have to go through metaphysics – those were the waters around, and getting out of a metaphysics-centric philosophy was necessarily going to involve some tool going through metaphysics. I don’t think that the only ultimate Hegelian tool is rhetoric, but I think that in the aftermath of a Hegelian modernity it might seem that way. We now live in a time when the truthness of a given thing is going to be perceived via the lens of social construct seen as social construct. This changes the whole game, and there is no going back. Unless, of course, we consider pretending we can operate outside of this manner of thinking a “going back.”

    we have conservatives who love Marxism like the Red Tories, and Marxists who act awfully like conservatives in their tastes and attitudes. The Red Tories of old (George Grant, etc.) and the new Red Tories hated and hate Marxism. Phil Blond is a total third-wayer espousing the naïve belief that there is a third ground that is not capitalist or socialist. The new Red Tory movement in the UK is through and through conservative, kind of akin to Crunchy Con stuff here only with more traction because David Cameron has brought Blond in as one of his intellectual advisors.

    This is all I have time for today. More tomorrow. Sorry I have to break this up, but I’ll have to do this in installments.

    Peace out dawgs.

  5. There are some areas where I agree, some areas that I have little opinion about, and a lot where there is so much disagreement with no chance of either of us convincing the other that continued engagement would involve a lot of repetition.

    That’s completely fair; I had suspected as much from the outset, but I felt it was best I lay my cards out for you.

    The parameters Hegel used aren’t the parameters of Hegelianism. Have you seen Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History by Susan Buck-Morss? It’s worth a look.

    That’s true, but part of what leads me to this conclusion is how Hegelianism has been manifested, rather than Hegel proper. If we were left with Hegel alone (or, perhaps, had Feuerbach never been born…) I do not know if the inherent democratic properties of Hegelianism would be apparent. Hegel himself is so ultimately interested in the ruling principle as such that it obscures the democratic element that I think is ultimately the heart of his philosophy. Spirit inheres in the people, though Hegel’s people would be far more constrained than the universal true class of Marxism.

    I haven’t read the book you mention, but I’ll check it out to see if it would be interesting.

    The values I note are largely rhetorical, but I think it is worth noting that the Right largely has borrowed moralist elements from the Left (the most notable example being the various universal elements of Leftism), but has normally shied away from scientism. This is not to say that there are not scientistic elements on the Right, but they’re notable in large part due to their oddity. An E.O. Wilson (or to take a more recent blogger, Razib Kahn) is an outlier. (I am not sure the “racial science” of the Nazis counts, because it was far less scientific than the contemporary eugenics movement among Progressives of the Angloshpere. Nazi racialism tended to express itself in mysticism, not skull measurements; when it was scientific, it simply borrowed wholesale from the Eugenicists. The Nazi racial policies arise more out of the Right Hegelian obsession with the destiny of the German race than out of any specifically scientific claim for German/Aryan superiority.) The Right has moralist arguments of its own, but they largely stay on the Right.

    (My basic problem with Robin’s thesis is that I think the trick of using a Whig like Burke as the exemplar and source of conservativism is exactly what you should do if you want his results.)

    Without getting into the Augustine (mostly because I don’t feel as competent in his political thought as I do Aquinas’s), I think—for example—how Aquinas speaks of “justice” is somewhat nebulous, but it is rooted in a conception that there is something definite called “justice” which we can fruitfully talk about and aim towards. It isn’t a referential class which is then used to shape a revolutionary agenda. There are all sorts of reasons why the Thomist tradition as such is a poor basis for a revolutionary (or counter–revolutionary) platform. (The interesting discursion from here would be the question of whether or not that is what neo–Thomism sought to fix.) I don’t think “rape” is as nebulous as your discussion tried to make it: Rape is easy to define, cases of it are sometimes hard to understand. With Marxism, it is almost the opposite: The proletariat is hard to define sufficiently (especially in the modern situation), but many Marxists seem to be confident they “know it when they see it”. That said, I almost completely agree with your charge against Christian theology in the modern age, but the crisis is still different than Marxism’s. Christianity’s crisis is epistemic and methodological, but it is still metaphysically confident in a way Marxism is not; this is the essence of the non–Lacanian side of Zizek’s project, the attempt to make up for Marxism’s hollow core with Christianity’s confidence in the Absolute. (Putting aside, for the moment, “death of God” theologies and certain sorts of Heideggerian phenomenological reductions that have ocurred on the academic fringes of Christian confession.)

    Another way to put it would be this: Christianity has not figured out how to express itself coherently after the revolutions, but it is not tied to their fate as Marxism is.

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